Early Undiscovered Likenesses of Matsumura Sokon and Itosu Yasutsune?

Author and karate sensei Bruce D. Clayton in his intriguing book Shotokan's Secreti raises the intriguing possibility that we may have early likenesses of Shuri-te ancestors Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899) and Itosu Yasutsune Anko (1830-1915). No photo of Matsumura was known to exist and only one possible photo of Itosu in old age was believed to be authentic.ii Drawings of both teachers have been widely available, but Clayton argues with some credibility that there was actually a photograph-now available only in lithographic reproduction-of both masters in 1853, when Matsumura would have been 44 and Itosu a mere 23.

The photograph was taken at the insistence of Commodore Matthew Perry, a U.S. Naval officer who landed on Okinawa and forced himself upon the Okinawan leadership despite their best efforts to rebuff his demands.iii The Okinawans were successful in hiding the child-king and his immediate family, but Perry forced them to hold a reception for himself and his officers with the regent, Sho Taimu. Flanking the regent on his right was an unidentified Okinawan who bears a striking resemblance to later drawings of Matsumura. Moreover, it makes sense that Matsumura-the Court's chief of security-would be attending the regent, although apparently armed only with an iron fan (tessen). Standing to the left of the regent is another unidentified man who apparently is holding a brush and ink pot, the tools of a scribe. Itosu was known to be one of the Court's top secretaries and calligraphers.

Lithograph of a photo of Ryukyuan Regent Sho Taimu, possibly flanked by Matsumura Sokon (left) and Itosu Yasutsune (right)

The conclusion that these are Matsumura and Itosu are by no means certain-arguably, chief security officer Matsumura should have been guarding the young king-but the likenesses are sufficiently similar to later drawings and the possible photo of Itosu to make it very possible that these are "missing" pictures of some of the earliest masters of Okinawan karate.

Close-up of regent and two attendants.

A Middle-aged Matsumura Sokon?

This widely available sketch (left) is said to show Matsumura Sokon as a relatively old man. According to Clayton, Matsumura was known for his penetrating gaze, "demon eyes" which could penetrate and sometimes mesmerize an opponent into backing down from a confrontation. His eyes were also significantly more slanted than those of the regent, his other attendant, or most Okinawans. The right side of Matsumura's face also appears to be slightly deformed, possibly from an illness or a training accident. Although the older individual is clearly thinner, this was (and is) not at all uncommon among Okinawans. The shape of the chin, the inequality of the eye shapes, the penetrating look, and the apparent asymmetry of the face all suggest we may be looking at two pictures of the same man, one in middle age and one in his later years.

A Young Itosu Anko?

At least one drawing and two photographs of Itosu are believed to accurately portray his likeness, but all were taken in late middle-age or older. None has heretofore been identified as a youthful Itosu.


If these are true likenesses of Itosu, he can be seen to have a relatively square head, eyes that lie on a horizontal plane, and a left eye that appears slightly different that the right. The shape of the mouth is obscured by the presence of a moustache in all three likenesses, but this individual appears to have a relatively straight and full lower lip and a pronounced "groove" between nose and upper lip. Judge for yourself whether these photos bear a close resemblance to the Regent's left attendant. To my eye, the most similar appearance is between the old man tentatively identified as Itosu (above right) and the Regent's secretary. The drawing captures something of the open but alert gaze of the young man, but portrays a longer chin than shown in the earlier lithograph, a possible artist's error. The photo on the left above has the square chin, even eyes and eyebrows, and nose, making it likely that this too is a photo of Itosu Anko in middle age.

    Bruce D. Clayton, Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins. Ohara Publications, 2004.

  1. For alleged drawings of Matsumura and Itosu, see Christopher M. Clarke, Nyumonsha: A Handbook for Beginning Students. Huntingtown, MD: 2007, page 91 and 115.

  2. See Matthew C. Perry, Narrative of the Expedition to the China Seas and Japan, 1852-1854. Mineola, MY: Dover Press, 2000.